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Ethical difficulties of journalists

Freedom of Information, Journalism and Libraries
1 Introduction
2 The principle of freedom of information
3 The legislative practice of freedom of information
4 Libraries and freedom of information
5 Journalism
6 Ethical difficulties of journalists
7 Conclusion
* References
tulosta Printable version
In an ideal world, with the right legislation in place, investigative journalism would have the scope to make an important contribution to society on a regular and consistent basis. In practice difficulties emerge even, or particularly, in open political systems. Journalism is potentially corrupted, both by rewards for silence or writing misleading stories, and by the search for the fame that can come with journalistic success. The following discussion is based on a number of unattributed newspaper stories, but the content is firmly in the public domain and the debate can be traced right throughout the English-language press and certainly much wider.

The Jayson Blair case in the USA brought the issue of unethical journalism into open debate during the first half of 2003. Blair was a successful young reporter with the New York Times, whose stories on a number of high profile cases, such as the Washington snipers, were published in the newspaper. After suspicions about his methods had been voiced on several occasions without further action being taken, it was clearly established that he plagiarised a story from another newspaper, the San Antonio News-Express. On examining his earlier output, it was found that he had habitually fabricated the content of his stories and had often not even been in the locations from which they were ostensibly sent. The point here is not so much about the professional temptations that faced a young journalist, but the way in which technology facilitated the deceptions and made it harder to resist temptation. The accounts of Blair’s misdeeds describe how he used his cellphone and his computer to carry them out. He had access to electronic versions of the stories filed by other journalists, could research locations from material on websites, and was in a position to communicate with his editors as if he was away following a story.

The scandal over Jayson Blair has provoked a closer look at the ethics of journalistic practices in the New York Times and other newspapers. Another journalist from the New York Times, Rick Bragg, has resigned because of his unattributed use of the work of unpaid assistants. There has also been considerable dispute over the independence of the reporting of the recent Iraqi war. For instance, it has been suggested that reporting by Judith Miller, again of the New York Times, on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction was in fact a covert use of the newspaper’s columns by the US government in an attempt to raise support for the war. Ms. Miller’s sources were said to include Ahmad Chalabi, an opponent of Saddam Hussein’s regime much favoured by the US administration.

The story of the rescue of a prisoner of war, Jessica Lynch, which at the time was used as a morale-raiser for the efforts of the Americans and their allies, has subsequently been seen as less straightforward. Non-American journalists seeking to clarify details of the story that might expose it as a carefully calculated media event rather than a heroic rescue, found it very hard to obtain the information they needed. Most damagingly, it has been alleged that American journalists were unwilling to put military spokesmen under pressure on this and other matters. The investigative spirit in journalism is obviously under threat in a number of ways. This is not necessarily, however, just a problem of journalistic ethics. As suggested in the case of Jayson Blair, the problem may lie, at least partially in the information environment in which journalism has to operate. One or two examples will illustrate what this means.

Plagiarism, for example, is something that infects the sources of information in a particularly damaging way. Take the writer’s own recent experience as an examiner reading student assignments and identifying possible plagiarism in a number of these. One simple way of testing the truth of the suspicion is to take a particularly distinctive phrase from the suspect passage and put it into an Internet search engine with quotations marks around it. In this case the technique produced just four hits. Two of those were a single paper that appeared legitimately on both sites. It contained the offending paragraph word for word (indeed, the quoted part ended ‘as follows:’ and the student had not bothered to plagiarise the list that did indeed follow).

The other two hits were even more interesting. One site provided an attributed quote from a source which had marginally plagiarised the passage in question, including taking a number of unattributed phrases from it. The final site also had the whole of the original passage, but as a quotation. However, this was not attributed to the author of the paper from which the student copied, but to a pair of joint authors in another publication. The dating of the various passages confirmed that the source from which the student had obviously copied, was itself an almost total plagiarisation of these joint authors. This type of small-scale self-serving dishonesty clearly pervades the very Internet from which so much research material is enthusiastically obtained by honest researchers and plagiarists alike.

There is, however, much larger scale deception built into seemingly reliable sources. What might charitably be called the politicisation of information provides good examples. There is discovery in 1996 of human remains, subsequently dated at 7300BC, at Kennewick, Washington State, USA, for example. (Piper, 2002) The remains have been the subject of a legal struggle between Native Americans seeking to give them a traditional burial and anthropologists who wanted to preserve them for scientific purposes. This is a legitimate dispute, but anyone using search engines for Internet information on the topic would be very likely to discover the Kennewick Man News site (New Nation, 2002), which denies the Native American origins of the skeleton in favour of an argument that Europeans were the first true occupants of North America. The significant thing is that the site also provides links to various White supremacist resources.

At the very least, caution is required when using such material. Similar unprincipled use of information can also be traced to governments. In February 2003 the British government issued a dossier purporting to show that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction capable of being launched at an enemy at 45 minutes notice. Using more sophisticated searches than the small one outlined above, journalists were able to identify the sources of this dossier. These turned out to be a number of published and semi-published documents including an American PhD thesis, rather than the original intelligence reports that might have been expected to be the source of such a dossier. When the sources available to journalists are as corrupted as this, the need for skilled investigative work and the difficulties in its path are both obvious.

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